If you’re at all interested in the world of books, you’ve probably read the news. Harper Lee is going to be a one-book author for only a few months more.
A companion book to her classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” is set to be published in July. Lee said she had written this book first and her editors had encouraged her to write Mockingbird based on flashbacks in the manuscript.
As a book lover, I should be ecstatic. And I am thrilled for the world of literature–this is BIG news.
But, I’m not rushing to Amazon to pre-order my copy. I may not even read the new book. Why?
I didn’t really like To Kill a Mockingbird.
I know, I know. I’ve suffered the ridicule of my colleagues already this morning. But it’s the truth.
I read Mockingbird as a 15-year-old high school sophomore. It was part of the summer reading for my advanced English class. We read the book and discussed it for all of 2-3 days when we started the school year (so about 150-200 minutes). There was no teacher guidance through the book, just after the fact reflection.
I was 15. I didn’t get it as much as I probably should have or could have if I had been taught the book. And the experience of reading it was so not fun, I’ve never tried to read the book again.
That got me thinking about other books I was asked to read in high school. (I would say forced, but most of the time I read the books willingly…)
Many of the books I was asked to read, I didn’t get. Some of them I get now, others I still don’t.
I feel like if I had teachers who were able to relate the material in the books to what was going on in my life at the time, as a teenager, I may have been able to understand these books more. And maybe, just maybe, I would appreciate them more now as an adult.
Honestly, how can any 15-year-old be asked to adequately grasp the full scope of the message of Death of a Salesman, or To Kill a Mockingbird, or any of the other classics of literature we were all likely subjected to?
Yes, these books are important. They’re beautiful and they’re classics for a reason. But to appreciate them, you have to have guidance. Throwing a classic at a teenager and saying, “you’ll figure it out because you’re smart” isn’t going to help anyone appreciate the book. It may even lead that teenager to never pick up that book again at a later age, when they might actually appreciate it.
Take my opinion of Death of a Salesman. The play was another of my required readings as a sophomore in high school. I’d never had a job. Most of my classmates had no previous work experience, outside an occasional babysitting gig. Our teacher actually told us that we would understand it when we were older because we would be working and we’d get it then.
Umm….. just a few things. #1: why are we reading this at 15 or 16 years old then? #2: how is that supposed to make me want to pick up a book that ends with a guy and a radiator becoming best friends when I’m actually working? Spoiler: I haven’t picked up Death of a Salesman again. I never plan to.
Why couldn’t we have read The Crucible? Exposure to Arthur Miller: Check. Relatable material: Check. (Who hasn’t felt persecuted in one way or another in high school?)
Too often, high school teachers are focused on getting books on classic lists checked off for testing requirements or portions of novels stored away in the minds of their AP students for regurgitation in those essays on the exams.
High school English should be about introducing young readers to a variety of literature styles, eras, authors and themes. It shouldn’t be about checking a book off the list, especially if the teacher isn’t that into the book to begin with.
Maybe, someday when I have a child reading the book, I’ll resuscitate To Kill a Mockingbird and try to read it again. Until then, I think I’m going to let that bird stay dead.